Words & pics by Ed King @edking2210
The problem with a personal pleasure is just that, you enjoy something; the object of desire is isolated to one.
This rather lonely appreciation, especially of music, can make you a bore – inciting social tumbleweed as you spread your excitement across a Friday night pub table.
And as a man who discovered Tori Amos in his early teens, I speak from experience.
Collective enthusiasm, however, seems to have a much bigger voice; when you address a mob, from shoppers on a Saturday to patriots in a stadium, you’ve simply got more chance to be heard. So as I creep into the Arcadian Centre to watch Ólafur Arnalds, on soggy Tuesday evening, I am playing with rhetoric.
Since seeing the unassuming black & white poster on the Glee Club corridor wall last September I have been itching for tonight’s gig, but I am relatively late to this party; I first listened to Arnalds‘s sophomore classical release, …and they have escaped the weight of darkness, about 2 years ago. It hooked me, it broke me; but so far I’ve only had two people from my esoteric peer group (Facebook) corroborate this new found fascination. So how do I best review this concert, how do I position this gig, how do I engage a room of potentially deaf ears?
There is a queue, stretching halfway round the top level of the Arcadian. And tonight is £20 a ticket.
I snap some pictures as proof before nestling into the (still growing) queue behind an old friend, his wife and the friend they’ve come with. So makes that five. On the door the stewards are checking “do you have a ticket for this evening?” with the tired familiarity of repetition, and as I stag my way into the main room it’s already standing room only.
Shutting the bar early, to “create that Kate Bush effect”, the audience are complicit and settled. The stage is set with a grand piano, laptops, a free standing bass drum, and six seats for accompaniment.
It’s a big set up on a small stage, but I’m pleased to see so many places set for other musicians. Ólafur Arnalds is exemplary in his compositions for keys, wind and string, but I didn’t know how much would make it onto the limited Glee Club rostrum. There’s also a curious arrangement of strip lights – and the large GLEE lettering, that usually makes up the backdrop, has been covered in black cloth.
I take my default position by the EXIT sign and nurse the only glass of red wine I’ll get to order tonight. As the lights dim, a hushed reverence grips the crowd and I catch my last glimpse of earnest faces, tweed, and neatly trimmed beards. This is, for a large part, a crowd who ‘know’; I lick the back of my teeth and hate myself for it immediately.
The ensemble take their positions on stage, before Ólafur Arnalds slides quietly behind the grand piano and simply starts to play; soft keys introducing a slow violin, before incremental layers lead us away from Arnalds’s meticulous restraint. The accompanying instruments ebb and flow, filling the room and releasing it again.
Moving through a taste of the Broadchurch soundtrack, ‘Danny’s Funeral’, and a selected proffering from Arnalds’s last studio album, For Now I Am Winter, the quality of sound coming of the stage is excellent. But it is track four, the opener on Arnalds’s 2011 Living Room Songs EP (seven tracks recorded in seven days, in his living room), that begins to stamp the evening’s authority; ‘Fyrsta’, or ‘first’ as it translates, comes out across the Glee Club in as close to perfection as I believe is possible on a weekday. I lean against a pillar on the back wall, peering at the stage like child sneaking into an adult’s Christmas party. I don’t quite know what to do.
After small break and nervous clap, like a good classical audience should, Ólafur Arnalds introduces himself and the other artists on stage. I am somewhat surprised to see a Trombone and French Horn in tow, with brass not being easily prominent in what I know of his material; but the man sounds like his music and I just want to shut up and listen.
The next track is ‘Poland’, which featured on the oddly incongruous soundtrack to Another Happy Day but was written whilst touring across the eponymous country – with only driving and drinking to pass by the hours. It’s mournful, hopeful and reserved, and leaves an air of comfortable melancholy hanging over the room.
The rest of the set is a hopscotch of tracks from either Broadchurch or For Now I Am Winter; albeit with a couple of tracks, ‘Montage’ and ‘I Felt So Guilty’, being unknown elements to me. Midway, the mystery of the free standing bass drum is answered as vocalist Arnór Dan joins the stage for a further five tracks, again from either Broadchurch or For Now I Am Winter. Dan’s voice is soft and determined, and usually fighting its way to the top of Agent Fresco’s ‘sideways-pulling polyrhythms and spasmodic eruptions of aggressive guitar’, but also a moving adornment to Arnald’s compositions. It’s a spectacular affair, but one that sadly limits the set list, again, to…
The last two tracks, however, return to Living Room Songs – as the sublime and simple ‘Near Light’ and ‘Lag fyrir Ömmu’ (translated as ‘song for Grandma’, the woman who reportedly compelled her grandson’s more classical endevours) close what has been a beautiful concert. My only gripe, for there is always a gripe, would be the number of soundtrack songs that dominated the set list – leaving little room for Arnalds’s wider body of work.
Not a single track from his heartbreaking 2010 album, …and they have escaped the weight of darkness, or the masterful 2009 Found Songs EP, made it onto the stage tonight. But with the Broadchurch series 1 & 2 soundtracks released in January, alongside a recent move to the Mercury Classics imprint, perhaps this is more strategy than pandering. Or perhaps it’s a little of both. After the whole stage takes a bow, I layer up and make my way out with the crowd – running into yet more people I didn’t expect to see tonight and one I thought I might.
Ólafur Arnalds is a superb voice in the burgeoning scene of contemporary composers – crossing the classical/electronica divide with more depth and deftness than most (Max Cooper and Nils Frahm not too far behind). But another success of this evening has been the numbers that attended; I honestly didn’t know how well received this Icelandic composer would be. The last time Arnalds played in Birmingham was upstairs at the Hare & Hounds.
Mind you, in between that gig (2007) and this gig there have been some widely celebrated successes for Ólafur Arnalds – including the omnipresent recognition you get from a BAFTA winning soundtrack. But Birmingham is still not the easiest place to pack out a venue, and it was a most welcome surprise to turn up and see that queue – for a contemporary composer on a miserable February weekday; I feel a strange civic pride.
Perhaps the next garrulous endorsements I give, even in alcohol tinged tones, won’t fall as flat as they did in those formative years. Perhaps. To everyone who wasn’t queuing up outside the Glee Room tonight, I apologise in advance.
For more on Ólafur Arnalds, visit http://olafurarnalds.com/
For further listings from The Glee Club (B’ham), including all comedy and live music shows, visit https://www.glee.co.uk/birmingham/
For more from Birmingham Promoters, visit http://birminghampromoters.com/